Songwriter Interviews

Whitfield Crane of Ugly Kid Joe

by Greg Prato

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Ugly Kid Joe, those grungy rockers who had a hit with "Everything About You" in 1992, have the distinction of being slagged off by Nirvana. "There's no stuff like Big Black or Butthole Surfers coming through and charting, it just seems to be stuff like Ugly Kid Joe," Krist Novoselic sneered at the time.

UKJ followed up their hit with a most unlikely single: a cover of Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," becoming the only act other than Chapin to chart with the song (it went to #6 in 1993).

The group ended up with two double-platinum-certified recordings - the Ugly as They Wanna Be EP and the America's Least Wanted full-length - before going their separate ways in 1997. But the band - lead singer Whitfield Crane, guitarists Klaus Eichstadt and Dave Fortman, bassist Cordell Crockett, and drummer Shannon Larkin - reunited in 2010, and five years later, issued their fourth album, Uglier Than They Used ta Be.

Crane spoke with Songfacts just a few days before the album's release, and was up for discussing songwriting, the stories behind some of their best-known tunes (and videos), as well as getting to jam with one of heavy metal's most legendary bands.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How would you compare being in Ugly Kid Joe now compared to the old days?

Whitfield Crane: Well, there's a closure to all of it and a joy to all of it - that we get to do it at all. I mean, the talent pool is always there, and still is there. As far as writing music with these guys in let's say, 1996 versus 2015, imagine everybody and all their wealth of experiences - collectively and by themselves - and imagine pooling everybody in one room and wanting to be there.

There's a joy to that. I think it's a rare "landing" for almost any band. There's lots of bands that had success in let's say the early '90s, but very rarely do you get to get back together and want to be in the same room. So I guess the short answer would be experience and the fact that we get to do it at all. At the end of Ugly Kid Joe in late '96 or early '97, we were over it. And fair enough - we lived a lot together!

Songfacts: Do you write songs on an instrument?

Whitfield: I personally write in my head, because I don't play any instruments. But I have a very good memory. So I have pieces of songs to put under my psyche, and do for years at a time.

For the writing process of this particular record, some songs were nearly done, some songs didn't exist, some songs were in my brain. The primary songwriters for this album were Klaus, myself, and Dave. Those all kind of came to fruition through those particular songwriters, and the cast of characters really brought it to the next level.

Songfacts: Can you give a few examples?

Whitfield: Well, for "Mirror of the Man," that's a song that I had the idea of it. Klaus and I were doing pre-production in Palo Alto - I was house-sitting at a friend's house, and I was like, "Come on over dude, let's work on songs."

Klaus came over with his archaic tape machine - it wasn't a TASCAM portable one, but it might as well have been - and we sat there, and I had these ideas. I sang them a cappella - there was no piano, no guitar, it was just out of thin air. And that song is "Mirror of the Man," and it's pretty much the same tuning, same storyline, same kind of Buddhist [chant] - all of that was there. So for that, it was out of thin air.

And it does come out of thin air anyway. There's lots of ways to look at it. I figure humans in general, we're just kind of conduits, really, to a song or whatever it may be.

Dave Fortman came in with "She's Already Gone" pretty much done. You have the vision and you bring in the other components - you bring in the drums, you bring in the bass, and you bring in of course Dave Fortman's savvy production skills.

So imagine the song's construct, meaning each song was badass like it was a cake, but then collectively with all the various drummers or guitar players, these cakes became pretty damn tasty.

Mr. Crane isn't kidding when he talks about Dave Fortman's "savvy production skills." After UKJ's split in 1997, Fortman carved quite a niche for himself producing quite a few renowned and respected heavy bands (Slipknot, Godsmack, Otep, Mudvayne, Superjoint Ritual, and Anthrax), as well as artists that lean more towards the pop side of things (Evanescence and Simple Plan). As a result, it made perfect sense for Fortman to handle production duties for his own band as well - which he accomplished on Uglier Than They Used to Be.
Songfacts: Favorite singers and songwriters?

Whitfield: Bon Scott, Rob Halford, Ozzy Osbourne, Cat Stevens, Ronnie Van Zant, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix... I could go on for an hour-and-a-half. But those are the people that are storytellers. Ronnie Van Zant was just a hell of a storyteller. Lemmy Kilmister is a great storyteller. Bon Scott was a street poet. And the tones of these men and women are the ones that really touched me as a kid.

Songfacts: Didn't you serve as the fill-in singer for Black Sabbath's rehearsals during the late '90s?

Whitfield: No - I jammed with Black Sabbath December 3rd, 4th, and 5th 1997 in Birmingham, England when they were recording those particular dates for a live Sabbath record. They had Thom Panunzio back there with an 18-wheeler truck, with a full-on studio backstage at the NEC. So it was the first of a series of reunion shows that included the original Sabbath lineup - that includes Bill Ward.

So when I got there, I was like, "Holy shit. This is so awesome - we're going to see Black Sabbath... the real Sabbath." And they needed to run daily through soundchecks to get their stuff tight, whether it be the studio backstage or just the players themselves. Their sound is kind of like a jazz band if you think about it, and they needed a vocal cue.

From what I can gauge, Ozzy was like, "I don't want to sing a whole set and then sing another set." And fair enough - I wouldn't want to, either. But of course, I would. [Laughs] And I got a note on my door at the hotel in Birmingham, that said, "We need your help," and that included me going to jam with Black Sabbath for three days - the full set, on the full PA, on Ozzy's mic, with the band loud as fuck, in Birmingham at the NEC. That did happen, and what a good trip.

Songfacts: Let's discuss some of Ugly Kid Joe's songs, starting with "Neighbor."

Pictured in the artwork of the 1995 Ugly Kid Joe album Menace to Sobriety: a $12,000 hotel bill for damages to their room.
Whitfield: I only found out years later that Klaus wrote that about me! Years later, I'm like, "What's the song about, Klaus?" Because Klaus was the primary songwriter back then. And he's like, "That is about you, Whit Crane."

But what do I think about that? I think about that as that's 1992, we were blowing up. Lyrically, it's this family that moves into the suburbs - somewhere like Palo Alto where Klaus and I grew up - and torture their neighbors through wine, women, and song. It reminds me of good times.

Songfacts: "So Damn Cool"?

Whitfield: "So Damn Cool" is off of the same record, which is America's Least Wanted, and I think that riff is heavy as fuck. It's a great song. It was the heavy part of us. Mark Dodson, the producer of that record, that guy can really lock and load with guitar tones. The sound of that riff is just immense.

Songfacts: Memories of shooting the "Cats in the Cradle" video?

Whitfield: Matt Mahurin shot that. We were blowing up, and it was a really scary, exciting ride. We were to go and shoot that video with this big-time video producer. We went to his parents' home where he had grown up - I think both his parents were gone by then, deceased. It kind of had this sad feel... it was almost like a tomb.

I remember wandering in there and I sat on top of a pool table in the gaming room. I sat Indian style, and I did it in one take. He wasn't being lazy, it was just that he had his camera and he knew what he wanted. Afterwards, he said, "I've worked with Bette Midler, Bono..." He didn't want to put it into words. I go, "What do you mean?" He goes, "You're done."

That song means a lot to me just because of my childhood, but as far as shooting the video itself, that was done in one take for my particular performance.

Songfacts: "Madman"?

Whitfield: That's Klaus writing some funny stuff about Disneyland. And if you listen to the musical score, it's kind of influenced by old Chili Peppers - "Backwoods." That was just when we got infected by the Chili Peppers and we were like, "Oh my God! This is the greatest thing we've ever seen!"

Songfacts: "Everything About You"?

Whitfield: "Everything About You" is a song about Farrell T. Smith, our childhood friend - and still our dear friend, now. He actually lives in San Francisco now - he's a captain of a fire department. But Klaus uses a lot of us as "the muse." So for instance, as I alluded to before, I had no idea "Neighbor" was about me until years later. But I was very aware that "Everything About You" was about Farrell.

Now, Farrell is a very cynical man and he's very good at it. He's not mean-spirited by any means, but he can sure pick apart any situation. And he always had that charm about him.

So when we were kids, there was Farrell, and all of a sudden, there's Klaus with this song. Klaus wrote that song on piano in Palo Alto at his parents' house. I think it's a good song and a lot of it has to do with truly what surrounds you, because I'm sure everybody has similar surroundings - it's just about tuning in and using that.

Songfacts: And what are some memories of shooting that video?

Whitfield: All of a sudden we were at Isla Vista, California. We could play the streets of IV and people would come see us, or we could play a bar downtown and people would come see us. It was exciting times. All of a sudden, we had this record deal. You're very excited. You're a kid - you're not quite sure what you got yourself into, and you've got your dreams. You have no idea of the true math if your dreams are going to come true, because statistically, that shouldn't happen. But we believed wholeheartedly that everything was going to go down.

We shot that down in Isla Vista, California on a $5,000 budget. We shot it with Thomas Mignone, and the dog that appeared in the video was just there - at the moment. All our friends were up on the cliff. The beach is down, and up on the cliff you can have all your friends heckling you and making fun of you. If you've never watched a video shoot, in general, it's absurd. Rock n' roll in general is absurd - just the whole thing. But shooting a video and all that, with your Doc Martens on, on a beach - it's pretty funny theater if you're just watching it. But it was good and we finished it. I remember getting edits of it and I showed it to all our friends.

What I like about video in general is past the commerce of music and the tool that making a video is - like, "Here's a new song, please go buy our shit" - past that, now I'm 47, and when I made that video, I must have been 23. So just to have some kind of image to a song that's all edited and looks professional, to capture that ghost, and to be able to have it later in life, is pretty cool. If I make it to 95, it will be cooler as I go. I think we captured something there.

As I recall, we beat out Michael Jackson for #1 worldwide or something like that. Some absurd thing, like one of those multi-million dollar videos versus these upstart kids. And I remember thinking, "Wow! It's all happening!"

That video became iconic, and that video helped us to travel around the world. We never thought we would leave California, and all of a sudden, we're going to Australia. You get off a plane and you're playing the Hordern Pavilion, and it's sold out. You're like, "Holy shit!" And a lot of it had to do with that very video. So, good times.

October 21, 2015.
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